Serpent's Tail, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - book review: 'Convoluted family affair doesn't quite hit home'
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Tuesday 25 March 2014
Karen Joy Fowler's novel is built in such a way as to make it peculiarly difficult to write about. Anyone who has read it might forgive me for simply reporting that it is an intricate and humane story about families, and the damage that good intentions can do, and leaving it at that.
The family at its centre is that of the Cookes, Mom and Dad and their three children – in order of age: Lowell, Fern and Rosie. They grow up in 1970s Indiana, where Dad Vince is a psychology professor – of the type that "didn't leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn't even think to ask."
We do learn, in time, exactly what experiments the parents perpetrated on their children, but only through the retrospective filter of regret, guilt and accusation: 20 years on, Rosie is the only one of the three children in contact with the grown-ups, and it's she who tells the story.
In 1996 she is going through a bad patch at college when Lowell suddenly turns up on her doorstep, with news of the long-disappeared Fern. Things are further complicated by the interventions of Rosie's unlikely friend, Harlow, who is the sort of anarchic devil-may-care "psycho bitch" who would hog the limelight in almost any novel but this.
Here, despite the wilful destruction, and the drugs, and the stolen ventriloquist's dummy, she is outshone by the Cookes themselves. "You know how everything seems so normal when you're growing up," Rosie remembers her freshman roommate saying, on their first day of college, "and then comes this moment when you realize your whole family is nuts?" – little does she know!
All this complication, though, which takes in jail, helicoptered-in civil rights lawyers and gung-ho janitors, does lessen the impact of the novel. It's true that Rosie is a terribly conflicted narrator, and by the end of the book we understand her reasons for making such a convoluted hash of what is at heart a simple story, but that doesn't stop the annoyance she generates along the way.
It's Fowler, not Rosie, that chose the structure of the book, and she might just as easily have taken a dozen more straightforward routes that would have made the same heartfelt points about human nature and the duties we have to each other – and the impossibility of ever achieving this, thanks to what Rosie memorably calls "the clown car between our ears".
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 World peace? These are the only 11 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict
- 4 Nicki Minaj 'Anaconda': Singer finally releases predictable video
- 5 James Foley 'beheading': Met police warn public watching murder video could be criminal offence
Laughs go global as Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran bring international comedians to the Edinburgh Fringe
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women